National Education Standards….They’re Back!

News at Home

Mr. Kosar, Ph.D., is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), http://www.kevinrkosar.com/Failing-Grades.html.

Over the past six months, the need for national education standards has been talked up. The idea, in short, is that the U.S. should have brief written statements of the skills and knowledge children should attain at each grade level for each subject area. The federal government would either encourage or require states to base their schools’ curricula on these standards. Education colleges, in turn, would train would-be teachers in the standards.

Much of the talk has come from those in the federal education policy circles. In November 2005, the progressive think-tank, the Center for American Progress, released a report that declared, “The federal government should support the crafting, adoption, and promotion of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas….” Education Week, the newspaper of record for school news, recently carried an op-ed by Diane Ravitch arguing for national education standards. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, also participated in an online chat on Education Week’s website, where she advocated a “national core curriculum.” [Disclosure: the author once was a research assistant to Prof. Ravitch.] Meanwhile, Denis Doyle, a long-time observer of schooling and education policy, wrote about national education standards in his online newsletter in January. And, in March, Education Sector, another think-tank, has hosted a debate on… yes, national education standards.

Outside this wonky loop, the New York Times editorial board has made inchoate rumblings about establishing some sort of national education standards policy. “It will be impossible to improve math and science education until we assess teachers’ preparedness based on the same high standards in all parts of the country,” it opined on January 24 th . Whether these teacher education standards should also be used in the classroom, though, the Times has not made clear.

Proponents tend to justify national education standards on two grounds. Some argue that for America to remain economically competitive with other nations, our students needed to be more learned. Other advocates see national standards as a tool for equity. Different children attend schools with challenging curricula, others, all too often in poor and non-white communities, do not. This is not fair; thus, national standards are needed to see that all students receive a rigorous education.

So… A man named George Bush occupies the White House and there is talk of establishing national standards. Pardon me for quoting New York Yankee legend, Yogi Berra, but, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Fifteen years ago, President George H.W. Bush announced his America 2000 plan, which advocated drawing up “world class standards” and achievement tests. Over the next two years, the Department of Education, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Science Foundation awarded grants to fund the development of national standards. Scholars and experts would draft standards and a national board of citizens, scholars, and others would then review the standards and provide feedback to the authors, who would revise the standards. In a nod to tradition, the Bush administration did not intend to impose these curricular guidelines on schools. Rather, the standards would be produced and states free to use them or not.

It was an interesting idea, but it died a violent death at the hands of politics. In October of 1994, the standards for U.S. history were about to be unveiled. Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities who had helped fund the creation of the history standards, savaged the standards for political correctness in the Wall Street Journal. A hullabaloo erupted and editorial pages and talk radio were flooded with outraged voices. In January of 1995, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the standards by a vote of 99 to 1. Not only were the history standards dead, all national education standards were condemned as unlawful and deleterious federal dabbling in local affairs.

This history is relevant to today’s consideration of national education standards because it would appear that the same impediments to enacting national standards that existed then exist now. First, there is the thirty-five year old federal law (20 U..SC. 1232(a)) that declares “No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system.”

Then there is the matter of politics. First, the tradition of local control over educational curricula goes back a long way, all the way back, in fact, to the 1600s, when European settlers first settled on this continent and erected schools. While the federal government has crept further and further into schooling over the past century --- especially since 1965 --- its role in the schools remains quite limited. Less than 10 percent of school funds come from the federal government. Schools remain, very much, local institutions.

Second, schools’ curricula have always been an intensely political matter. Politicians and parents alike have fought tooth and nail over using curricula to “Americanize” students, and to teach them “temperance” and “sex ed.” In the past year, there have been episodes reminiscent of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of a century back, with local school boards mandating that science courses provide theistic explanations of the origins of life.

While national education standards may make good sense as policy, politically they would appear to be as doomed as they were 15 years ago. Although scholars and experts may be best qualified to draw up schools curricula, the rest of the public will not stand by idly as the content of their children’s education is devised. Inevitably, the question of what schools should teach brings up values questions, about which everyone has opinions.

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More Comments:

Kevin R Kosar - 3/8/2009


Here we go again:


Kevin R. Kosar

Jeremy Greene - 3/17/2006

. . .is having your own opinion and choosing your own facts.

Unionized states have better scores than right to work states:
see http://www.weac.org/Resource/1997-98/Dec97/iwf.htm

. . . is seeing the problems in schools as a result of one, only one(?), cause. There are four broad categories of why schools are not improving fast enough. And they are always, based on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress or the Nation's Report Card) scores, improving. One, teachers are not skilled enough in their subjects, two and three, parents are not motivating their children to do well in schools to the extent society desires and students are not motivated to set school as priority #1, and four society or the culture of society still does not place enough priority on schools.

. . . is using SAT scores to view progress. More and more students are taking the SAT, thus, scores have fallen as the talent pool has broadened. So, NAEP is still the best judge of student progress.

. . . has left the building.

mark safranski - 3/16/2006

"...is unionization. Regardless of teacher diplomae, the fact is that it remains impossible to fire teachers who cannot teach, or no longer care. "

Actually not true. Teachers can always be fired for cause, all tenure requires is the following of due process in a dismissal procedure. What tenure prevents is arbitrary firing for reasons of politics or personality conflict, the latter being the largest single reason bar none in such proceedings.

Most dismissals of teachers are reversed by state hearing officers because the school district never had cause to begin with or did not bother to document any of the infractions. Teachers who violate significant policies of their school district ( falsifying records, sexual harrassment etc.) are reguarly fired regardless of tenure as they have provided cause.

Incompent teachers can be fired by being given poor evaluations of their teaching and then being placed upon remediation to improve and failing to do so. This avenue is seldom used by school administrators however because, frankly, it requires some effort on their part and quiet medicority is not valued all that much below excellence.

Elliott Banfield - 3/13/2006

Mr. Kosar is right about that. And the most highly localized institution is Mom&Dad. They are the only ones who have the power and the responsibility to set standards. Every other source of standards is intrusive.

Bottom line: Vouchers, vouchers, and vouchers. And more vouchers.

Frederick Thomas - 3/13/2006

...is unionization. Regardless of teacher diplomae, the fact is that it remains impossible to fire teachers who cannot teach, or no longer care.

SAT scores peaked the year I graduated from high school. Shortly afterward, the "Elementary and Secondary Education Act" was passed which treated education as a welfare payment to unionized teachers, and made unionization impossible to avoid.

It makes no difference how good the curriculum is if the teachers cannot teach it, if they take off days to the point of disruption, and if they simply do their own thing and cannot be controlled.

That is the situation in which urban schools particularly have found themselves for almost 40 years, and it needs to be corrected by removing this awful law from the books. Sadly, Bush's "No Child..." act failed to do anything about it, because he mistakenly thought it was important to get "Chappaquidick Ted" on board. That gutted what had been a good idea.

henry tyrone slothrop - 3/13/2006

As a recently certified public school teacher, I agree with your observations. I have both a Bachelor's and Master's in my subject area and was still required to pony up the cash to ensure that I was trained in managing my students within the classroom. While the required training did put me well on the way to another Master's degree, I found most of the required curriculum to consist of hoop-jumping and "portfolio" creation.

mark safranski - 3/12/2006

It would be more useful to students if their secondary teachers had at least a Bachelor's degrees in the content subject area they were assigned to teach. And for elementary school teachers to have at least a Bachelor's degree in any content area, as opposed to having been a major in education, which is most often the case. Education degrees should be reserved for the graduate level for prospective school administrators who require the courses in school law, finance and educational theory.

And it would also be helpful in the aggregate to students if their prospective teachers had been expected to maintain the GPA's in college equivalent to what is often required for acceptance by business, law and engineering schools. Too often, universities use their Colleges of Education as cash cows by steering large numbers of undecided bottom quartile of ability undergraduates into the field and setting the GPA bar as low as possible to keep them there for four or five years.

The economic self-interest of states and school districts in having a large and never-ending supply of young, cheap to hire, college graduates works against the supposed goal of high quality instruction. Teachers cannot teach very well the content of standards that they have never properly learned themselves.